Lawmakers react after coronavirus briefing: ‘I do not think we’re prepared’

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clashed with Democratic lawmakers as they grilled him on the novel coronavirus outbreak and the Iranian airstrike in Iraq that left US troops with traumatic brain injuries.

House lawmakers emerged from a briefing on coronavirus on Friday with Democrats saying that the country is not prepared to deal with the public health threat, while Republicans were less critical but still said that more needs to be done to combat the spread of the disease.

“This is potentially an enormous issue for the country and I do not think we’re prepared,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic Judiciary Committee member, said as she left the full House member coronavirus briefing.

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The Washington congresswoman said they’re unprepared “on multiple levels,” including on the local level as well as when it comes to resources like masks, testing kits and the possibility of quarantines.

“If this were to really become a serious epidemic in the country, you know, how do we deal with quarantine and isolation?” she asked.

Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, said he thinks “everyone is scrambling for information,” and members are frustrated about not getting a lot of their questions answered.

He added, “it needs to be all hands on deck. … There’s a lot of work that has to be done.”

Friday morning’s briefing for House lawmakers got off to a rocky start with a room that was far too small — the room only had 50 chairs set up in it — a situation that prompted complaints from some lawmakers. Members later moved en-masse to a larger room down the hall.

“We’ve got a group of experts sitting at a table. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. They cramped us in little rooms,” GOP Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan said.

In recent days, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed alarm over the outbreak and have raised questions about how prepared the United States government is to combat the virus.

Congressional appropriations are now working to determine the details and top-line numbers of an emergency coronavirus funding package in an effort to deal with the public health threat.

A variety of numbers have so far been discussed as potential toplines. Senate Democrats have floated $8.5 billion as a possibility, a higher number than the White House had requested earlier in the week. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has said that appropriators are looking at about $4 billion.

Leaving Friday morning’s briefing, White House legislative director Eric Ueland said that the spending discussions have been “very good, very robust.” He also said the goal is to reach a deal by “early next week,” but he wouldn’t discuss the price tag.

The briefing played out as a whistleblower at the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking federal protection after complaining that more than a dozen workers who received the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, lacked proper training or protective gear for coronavirus infection control.

The House Ways and Means Committee sent letters to Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar, the HHS Deputy Inspector General, and the comptroller’s office requesting more information after the complaint was submitted.

Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, said that briefers in the room pushed back on the whistleblower complaint that public health officials were not properly trained or protected at March Air Reserve Base when they went to meet incoming travelers from China.

Rep. Mark Takano — who represents California’s 41st district, which includes March Air Reserve Base where the 195 evacuees from Wuhan, China, were sent — spoke extensively with reporters after the briefing, raising questions about whether those evacuees are being tracked.

“I do want to know also whether, to what extent the 195 individuals evacuees who’ve gone back to their communities if they’re being tracked. Is our public health system tracking them?” he asked.

Takano listed five specific questions he had, and said the only one addressed in the briefing that morning was not answered to his satisfaction.

“They were — very briefly — to answer question number one, which was ‘what assurances that did you have the proper protocols are being followed during the federal quarantine?’ It was not a satisfactory answer,” he said.

And as lawmakers grapple with the implications of the spread of coronavirus in the United States, they are also now having to deal with preparedness on Capitol Hill, including in their own offices.

The Sergeant at Arms has sent House offices guidance on the coronavirus, according to screenshots of an email obtained by CNN from a House aide.

The guidance states “there are several steps you should take to prevent the spread of germs,” and advises “avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth,” “cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue,” and “clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.”

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